Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Why SDLP favourite to clinch third MEP seat from Alliance and Ulster Unionists

The real interest in the European election here later this month is who will join DUP and Sinn Fein in Brussels, writes Alban Maginness

Candidates will be hoping they tally enough votes to be elected one of NI’s three MEPs
Candidates will be hoping they tally enough votes to be elected one of NI’s three MEPs
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

There is no doubt that the greatest crisis to affect British politics since the end of the Second World War has been Brexit. It has destabilised the British parliamentary system, which is now in a state of constant crisis and disastrous indecision over the referendum decision to leave the European Union.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties, who have dominated Britain since the war, have been convulsed and fragmented over Brexit. The Conservatives are on the verge of splitting institutionally as a party, such is the depth of passion and ideological divergence over the continued union with Europe. Less so the Labour party, but its divisions are also extremely difficult to resolve.

The British parliament has, to the bemusement of the Europeans, been incapable of finding a workable consensus as to how to actually leave Europe. Arising out of that failure is the current participation of the UK in this month's European elections. There is a supreme irony in the UK having to conform to the rules of the European Union and hold elections, whenever it is supposedly on the way out.

Not that Europe wishes to have the participation of the UK in its parliamentary proceedings, nor in the determination of future key appointments such as the President of the Commission or the European Council. Far from it, they are in fact worried that some newly elected British MEPs will try to sabotage or damage important decisions, including the budget for the European Union.

Current opinion polls show that the Conservative Party is likely to be the biggest loser in these elections. The newly-formed Brexit Party, formed by Nigel Farage only a month ago, is likely to be the biggest winner with 34% of the vote, at the expense of the Conservative Party and Ukip. It is also predicted that the Europhile Liberal Democrats will do well with 12% of the vote, probably at the expense of the Labour Party.

But Brexit is not just a problem for British politicians, but a deeply worrying problem for Ireland, north and south. While Britain will suffer economically and financially as a result of Brexit, Ireland will suffer disproportionately more. Brexit is a huge disaster for both parts of this island and it would be best if it did not happen at all, such is its potential destructive impact .

The best we can hope for is the holding of a People's Vote, including a repeat question on whether or not to leave the Union. While nobody can be sure, there are at least good indications by the pollsters, that the British people would now vote to remain within the European Union.

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Meanwhile, the European election here will be a fascinating contest for the third seat, as the first two seats are guaranteed to Sinn Fein and DUP under the iron law of sectarian allocation.

In filling this last seat, it is crucially important for a remainer to be elected to Brussels, in order to send a very clear signal that Northern Ireland wishes to stay within Europe. This would reaffirm the decision here in June 2016 when 56% of the electorate voted in favour of remaining.

The beauty of that remain vote was that it transcended the traditional sectarian differences. Within that vote, there was a very significant unionist minority in favour of remaining. Expert academic analysis estimates this minority to be 30% of the unionist vote.

That being so there are thousands of pro-remain unionist voters who will not be voting for the DUP nor the Ulster Unionists, who have inanely adopted a pro-Brexit position. This was done despite the best efforts of former leader Mike Nesbitt to make the Ulster Unionists European friendly. The nomination of the pro-remain Danny Kennedy will only confuse unionist voters. It is extremely difficult in all the circumstances of this election to see Danny Kennedy repeat the Houdini-like votes of Jim Nicholson and win the third seat.

In 2014, the SDLP were only 2,000 votes behind the Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson and this time, as the opinion polls now indicate, it is likely Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, will push Danny Kennedy into fourth place. The last seat, will be a contest between Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long, with Colum Eastwood having a very definite advantage as the SDLP is predicted to be in third position with 13% on the first count.

Even allowing for her good local election results, for Naomi Long to overtake Colum Eastwood, is too much of a stretch given that in the last election the Alliance candidate only got 44,000 votes, about half of the SDLP's 81,000 votes. To overtake Eastwood is defying reality.

In the event, the good money must be on SDLP's Colum Eastwood to defeat Danny Kennedy and clinch the last seat.

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